The Genius of Old Adages

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In the last two months, two of my fellow APRA Greater Houston board members have shared reflections on their experience in the field of prospect research. Now it’s my turn, in our third installment of “What I Wish I’d Known”.

Before I got into prospect research I’d spent 12 years in various development roles:  grant writer, corporate and foundation relations manager, volunteer coordinator, and annual fund officer. During that time, I also earned my library science degree and was working a second job as an evening reference librarian, which I loved. One day, a development colleague of mine approached me about an opening as the number 2 on her prospect research team.  She was a business reference librarian who had been recruited into prospect research by yet another librarian. She shared with me that she found the work schedule was better for her, and the work was similar. I said “sure”, and that was that. The work has felt somewhat similar to what I was doing as the reference librarian, and the schedule, as it turns out, really has been better for my family life. It has enabled me to freelance when I’ve needed, as well as transition to a new city and find work. Additionally, this work has suited my personality duality: part introvert, part extrovert.

I’m reaching a point in my life—nearing an unspecified milestone birthday—where many adages are proving themselves to be true. This could be the genius of old adages or could be the resignation of people as we age—turning hopelessly back to embroidery pillows and cottage wisdom for solace, having learned no real lessons.

Reflecting on one’s professional career at the late mid-point feels a lot like running through a bunch of such folkish sayings. So, here I go.

It is what it is.  This is probably my favorite (and the worst) saying ever, and now I’m going to ruin it by expounding on it. In research, as in life, it really just is what it is. But it’s important to know what that means. Take a prospect profile for example: it should include what you know and only reference what you don’t know if you’re really sure there is something very important you don’t know. Perfect example: “No visible assets found.” Hey, that is what it is. We are working with public records, and we are missing crucial information. The situation is suitably grave for this adage. There is no need to say anymore. On the flip side, unless you are filling out a form profile, and you have to put something in every slot, don’t write: “No visible hobbies found.” That isn’t what “it is” is.

Perfect is the enemy of done.  Some people need to hear this more than others. Being surrounded by perfectionists and compulsives in many areas of my life, I never thought of myself as someone who needed this. But in research, I do. I might go so far to say, a researcher should need to hear it, because it means one is doing one’s job assiduously—even ardently! Truly knowing when you’re done researching a thing just comes with experience (or necessity). And I think the confidence to stop and accept, not fear, that your role in fundraising is important and limited, also comes with experience. Only so much data can be compiled and verified from published sources. Much of what really matters will (or won’t) be learned in a personal meeting. Finish the profile or the research note so a relationship with your precious prospect can turn from 2D to 3D.  Only human relationships, and not even the best research profile, will ultimately result in gifts.

Drop back ten and punt. This isn’t an adage, as you may have noticed; this is a football reference. This one comes from my dad, and he always knows when to say it to me. If you don’t watch football like me, this means to regroup and try something else a little less intense, maybe even a last-ditch effort. For me as a prospector, this means data mining. As researchers, we can strike out afield for new glitzy prospects on glass walls and in the glossy pages of annual reports. But we can also just go back and do the plodding task of slicing and dicing our existing donor and friends lists to find the shiny stuff. 

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. This one is kind of obvious—and might even be a proverb. In prospect research, our job is to present the leads and the justification for them. We may even argue for them. In most cases, our job ends there. We can present all the leads, strategy advice, and research we want, but ultimately it is up to a field officer to bring the leads to life. I’ve learned to choose to trust your field staff partners as much as possible. It has made me happier and resulted in more rewarding partnerships. They will be the ones out there in the field (as above), or in this case, the paddock. And remember, the proof is in the pudding. See what I did there?

Neither a conference heckler nor a conference skipper be. (More of a gross misquote of literature than an adage.) Attend the APRA Greater Houston Annual Conference on May 4, 2022!! Click here to register.

Victoria Walsh, Apra Greater Houston Board Member

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